The Value Of Art. Part 1: Masterpieces, Money & Meaning.


Art costs money. You heard us. You need cold hard cash to take home any of the work gracing our gallery walls. And if you waltz into Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and the like, you’re going to need stacks of it. At that grandiose scale owning art is unattainable for all but a select few. But why? What goes into that sealed, signed final piece that elicits its particular price tag? Why does some art become the exclusive domain of the billionaires? Particularly, what makes a Jeff Koons piece worth millions, while the work of our favourite, infinitely skilled and experienced artpistol artist costs but a fraction of the price? Across two blog posts we will be discussing some of the practical, complex, and shady aspects of art valuation, from the priceless to the undervalued – past, present, and perhaps future. Today, we will begin with an introduction to what foundationally builds the price of an artwork in a gallery like artpistol; and we will consider why, where, and when aesthetics – the visual appearance of a work – comes into its pricing. Next time, we will delve into the murky depths of valuation-politics, to consider why some artists procure millions for their work, and become canonised, while others simply do not.

What is art made of?

While it is never as simple and consistent as ‘time + experience + materials = price’ – there are some common factors that start to develop an artwork’s pecuniary value. Factors such as the time an artist has spent on the work – from processing ideas to undertaking the manual labour; expenses involved in the work’s production – including materials, framing, studio fees, transportation or postage, and gallery commission (for intermediaries and support systems, like artpistol!); and the experience and / or notoriety of artist, and the demand for their work from buyers, all contribute to a work’s price. Usually, over the course of their career, an artist will see (or actively create) an incremental climb in the financial value of their work; but this is not a neat and tidy process that is the same for everyone. How an artist values their work, galleries’ input that discussion, and the wider construction and perception of a work’s value entirely depends on the artist or the artwork in question. It is never the case that one particular style, subject, or form will absolutely and always be liked more, have greater impact, or bear a higher price tag than any other. At artpistol, for instance, we work with artists that we love – and we know our friends and visitors will love too. Within that what people actually like to buy, and how that work is priced, develops on a trajectory unique to an individual case.

What about aesthetics?

So materials, professional costs, time, artist experience and notoriety, all contribute to determining an artwork’s price. Okay… but that still provides no answer for why and how it is the case that a work by Jeff Koons, for instance, is worth more than that of a local Glaswegian artist, when you yourself may view the latter as far superior in skill and impact. Because surely we ultimately value art (visual art anyway) based on how it actually looks? Do we not connect with what we see, and invest in the emotional and intellectual connection we have with a piece? Do aesthetics translate into pecuniary value? Well, visual impact certainly influences many artistic transactions. If we like what we see, feel a spark, and have the means to do it, we can purchase an artwork! All of our artists at artpistol, for instance, produce highly skilled aesthetics. This is why we exhibit their work, and why visitors purchase it. For each, their artistic practice – usually taking the form of a manual and conceptual skill-set – sets them apart from non-artists. Of course, all of their works are different in media, method, subject, ideology and form – their individual aesthetic schemas bear value to different people in different ways, at different times. Their aesthetics provide a focal point for feeling, inspiration and cognition for viewers. So it is easy to think that the way in which an artwork looks, directly maps onto how it is valued. However, while it certainly influences sale at artpistol, aesthetics is not the primary driver of how much an artwork is valued in the broader context of the international art market.

Beyond the visual surface

The aesthetics of a Jeff Koons piece, for instance, is not alone what makes it valuable. If that were all it took perhaps your ‘five year old’ really could have ‘done that’ – or at least, one of the many fantastic artists across the world who have created aesthetically similar works to Koons would attain such dizzying art market valuations themselves. Valuation is clearly born from a more complex web of factors, then – not simply arising from the visual make-up of an artwork. This is where we get into tangled terrain that encapsulates swathes of philosophy, ideology, marketing, socio-political and economic factors, question of historic and ongoing hierarchies, and – dare we say it (of course we do!) – nepotism. We believe it is this jumble of factors, driving the financial worth of an artwork and the reputation of an artist, that makes the so-called ‘art world’ such a unique phenomenon. To make this clear – perhaps we could conceptualise the artwork as a person. You might be drawn to two physically and internally identical people at once. To you, both of these people may – on balance – be just as wonderful as each other; and, crucially, they look exactly the same. However, one of these people might accrue a higher salary, for instance. We can see that their visual form has no exclusive correlation with their price. They have, hypothetically, accrued that higher pecuniary value because of a complex mish-mash of different factors. The two people may essentially be the same but the world around them has shaped their price tag differently.

So, notions of aesthetics, as well as ideas of ‘skill’, ‘beauty’ or ‘impact’ all contribute to the ultimate price of an artwork – they cannot be dismissed – but they are just one factor of a much larger web of people, institutions and ideas, that platform, exclude, or shows frank indifference to an artwork at any given time. Hierarchies of what constitutes ‘good’ art, or ‘skilled’ art – or ideas of ‘beauty’, ‘impact’ or any other frame of judgement – are historically and culturally relative. That is, the exact meaning of these individual concepts change frequently, and they move in and out of fashion across time and space. It is these ideas – especially the politics of art valuation – that we will unpick further in part two of this series. So, as ever, thank you for reading, and we will catch you in the next blog!